Law Enforcement Views of Cyberbullying and Sexting
Earlier this summer, Sameer and I (along with our good friend Joe Schafer), published an article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin that describes the perceptions and experiences of law enforcement when it comes to responding to cyberbullying and sexting. This article stemmed from my work a few years ago as a Futurist in Residence with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. For the study, we surveyed 979 police officers (336 school resource officers [SROs] and 643 traditional law enforcement officers who were not assigned to schools). We wanted to know what they thought about these high-tech teen problems and to see if there were any differences in perceived roles when comparing SROs with traditional police officers.
Perceptions and Experiences
The vast majority of the SROs (94%) agreed or strongly agreed that cyberbullying is a serious problem warranting the response of law enforcement. Similarly, 93% agreed or strongly agreed that sexting is a serious concern for law enforcement. As far as experience, 78% of the SROs reported that they had investigated an average of 16 cyberbullying cases during the previous school year and 67% of the SROs reported that they had personally investigated a sexting incident in the previous year (average=5 incidents).
Like the SROs, the majority of the traditional police officers (82%) agreed or strongly agreed that cyberbullying as a serious problem warranting the response of law enforcement. Seventy-eight percent agreed or strongly agreed that sexting is a serious concern for law enforcement. Relatively few of the traditional officers had experience investigating cyberbullying and sexting cases. Ten percent reported investigating an average of 2 cyberbullying cases during the previous school year and 7% reported that they had personally investigated a sexting incident in the previous year (average=3 cases).
The Law Enforcement Role
As a part of this study, we asked officers to rate (on a scale of 0-10, with 10 equaling a “very important/significant role”) the extent to which law enforcement should play a role in ten different cyberbullying scenarios. The scenarios ranged from relatively minor (e.g., “A teacher confiscates a cell phone from a student in class and wants to determine if it contains any information that is in violation of school policy.”) to much more serious (e.g., “A male student receives an email from an unknown person threatening to kill him at school tomorrow.”). In all cases the SROs rated the law enforcement role significantly higher than the traditional law enforcement officers. Clearly, the officers who work in the schools, who most directly confront these problems, see themselves has having a greater responsibility in dealing with the cases than the officers who do not regularly work in schools.
Experience with cyberbullying and sexting cases was also big predictor of officer perceptions about their role. Specifically, officers who had experience with investigating a cyberbullying or sexting case were over 2.5 times as likely to view cyberbullying and sexting as a significant concern for law enforcement, compared to those who had no such experience. For both cyberbullying and sexting, female officers were significantly more likely to report that they strongly agreed that there was an important role in getting involved in the behaviors. Moreover, officers who had children under the age of 18 living at home were significantly more likely to agree that cyberbullying was something law enforcement needed to be involved in dealing with.
Appropriate Law Enforcement Response
Law enforcement officers, especially those who are assigned to a school, will undoubtedly need to become involved in cyberbullying and/or sexting incidents at some point during their careers. They will be most frequently called upon to act after incidents occur within the student body. While most instances of cyberbullying do not warrant the formal intervention and response of law enforcement, some cases do. Even if the cyberbullying behavior doesn’t immediately appear to rise to the level of a crime, officers should use their discretion to handle the situation in a way that is appropriate for the circumstances. For example, a simple discussion of the legal issues involved in cyberbullying may be enough to deter some first-time bullies from future misbehavior. Officers might also talk to parents about their child’s conduct and express to them the seriousness of online harassment. The law enforcement response typically varies based on how the case is discovered, how much harm has occurred, how evidence is collected, who all is involved, and how well-trained the officer may be. All officers, but especially those assigned to a school setting, should educate themselves about the online behaviors of adolescents. They should also seek to respond to misbehaviors in a reasonable and appropriate manner, with the goal of preventing subsequent problem behaviors without imposing unnecessarily harsh disciplines.
Decoding Your Digital Footprint
When individuals are online, they are assigned an Internet Protocol (IP) address by their Internet service provider (e.g., Earthlink, AOL, Qwest, Comcast, their school) or cell phone service provider (e.g., Sprint, AT&T, Verizon). This IP address is unique and is bound to a person’s current online session—whether it is via a computer, cell phone, or other portable electronic device. It is continually associated with the data transactions (sending [uploading] and receiving [downloading], interacting, communicating) that are made between one’s device and the rest of the World Wide Web and between one’s social networking site, email, instant message, and chat software and the existing population of Internet users. All data transactions are stamped with one’s IP address and the exact date and time (to the millisecond) that it occurred, and they are kept in log files on computers owned by Internet service providers, cell phone service providers, and content providers (Facebook, Google, Hotmail, Yahoo!, etc.).
When attempting to discover the aggressor behind the keyboard, it is vital to know the IP address bound to the malicious message or piece of content. Once that is discovered, the relevant provider can assist school police (or local, state, or federal law enforcement) in identifying the online session in question, which points to the Internet service provider or cell phone service provider through whom the online connection was made, then to the person connected to that specific account (by way of the billing information), and finally to the family member who was logged in at the time the cyberbullying took place.
From School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time
Should Cities Have a Cyberbullying Ordinance?
I have received quite a few inquiries in the last several months from local elected officials who are interested in proposing a city or county ordinance to address cyberbullying. An ordinance is basically a law or legal decree passed by local municipalities (usually a city, township, or county) that has the authority of law within the geographical limits of that municipality. Most cities have ordinances that govern parking, prohibit loud noises from vehicles, specify building standards, or require the licensure of pets, for example. If one is found to be in violation of a municipal ordinance, the person is usually fined a relatively small amount of money.
Several cities in my home state of Wisconsin have recently passed ordinances (e.g., Viroqua; Franklin). In addition, a number of cities in Missouri enacted local ordinances prohibiting cyberbullying following the tragic suicide of Megan Meier in 2006. At that time, there appeared to be very few legal (criminal) options to hold someone accountable for cyberbullying or other forms of online harassment. The question to consider is whether a local cyberbullying ordinance is the right way to tackle this problem. Here are my thoughts on this issue.
First, forty-nine states now have bullying laws in place and the vast majority of those (45) include provisions for electronic forms of harassment. The wording in these laws differs significantly from state to state, but all require schools to have policies in place to prohibit bullying and most prescribe school-based sanctions for participating in bullying. So these laws and a long line of court caselaw states that cyberbullying that occurs on school property or that substantially disrupts the school environment is subject to school authority and discipline.
Second, many states (including Montana—the one state without a formal bullying law) already have statewide criminal statutes that address cyberbullying. For example, in Wisconsin, it is a Class B misdemeanor to send an email or other computerized communication: “With intent to frighten, intimidate, threaten, abuse or harass another person…” Moreover, one is subject to a fine of up to $1,000 if they “harass, annoy, or offend another person” using an electronic communication system. Very few law enforcement officers I have communicated with here in Wisconsin have charged a student with violating this statute; however it is slightly more common for the police here (and in other places around the U.S.) to charge a student with disorderly conduct for harassing online behaviors.
So we need to ask ourselves what cyberbullying behaviors or scenarios exist that would not be covered under the above avenues and therefore would require a local ordinance? I suppose if you are in a state that does not have suitable state bullying or harassment (online or otherwise) statutes, then pursuing a local remedy might be necessary. Some of the local officials I have spoken to have indicated that their district attorney was reluctant or unwilling to file formal charges for cyberbullying behaviors and a city ordinance would give local police the ability to go after cyberbullies through the city attorney’s office. I’m not convinced this is the best place to handle these cases, but it does provide an additional lever to pull for someone who continues to engage in problematic online behaviors.
There is one potential benefit to local ordinances that may be specific to Wisconsin (it may apply to other states, I just don’t know). In Wisconsin, any contact that a person 17 years of age or older has with a circuit court (our lower level criminal court) is listed online through the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP). Anyone can look others up online through this public record system by name and birth date to see what trouble they have gotten into. When applying for jobs it is easy for hiring managers to look in this database to see whether someone has had a brush with the law. For example, if a high school junior receives an under-age drinking ticket when she is 17 years old, that would be listed on this website. Forever. So if that same student is then issued a citation for misusing a computerized communication system (sends a harassing email to a peer), which is a violation of Wisconsin state law, that too would be listed on the website, seemingly forever. If you are a victim of cyberbullying then maybe you think this is a good thing: the bully gets the punishment he or she deserves. But I think it is unrealistic to assume that anyone, especially teens, will be deterred from cyberbullying others for fear of being arrested and put on this online court system.
That is where a benefit of a local ordinance might be useful. If a city has a municipal ordinance prohibiting online harassment and also has a municipal court, then potentially the infraction would be handled at the local level and therefore the citation would not end up on the online public record. The “bully” would be punished, but it wouldn’t necessarily impact them for the rest of their life like a state violation could.
Look, the bottom line for me in all of this is that I believe that the vast majority of cyberbullying incidents, at least those that occur among school-aged youth, can and should be handled at the local level: by parents working with schools to resolve the situation outside of the formal juvenile justice system. If the harassment is particularly egregious or continues after other attempts have been made to stop it, then perhaps additional formal steps are necessary. But I just don’t think a local ordinance, on balance, will do much to add to the toolkit of suitable response strategies for this problem.
One thing is clear: if states had practical cyberbullying legislation, then local communities would not need to be looking to develop their own legal responses. I spend a lot of time working with legislators to develop cyberbullying laws. As I have mentioned on this blog before, despite my best efforts, my state of Wisconsin has a pretty poor bullying law that doesn’t even mention cyberbullying. I advocate language that emphasizes the school’s recognized authority to discipline students for any behavior that interferes with another student’s ability to feel safe and to learn at school. Specifically, I encourage legislators to adopt the following language:
Schools have the authority and responsibility to apply reasonable and educationally-based discipline, consistent with a pupil’s constitutionally granted privileges, to bullying that: (a) Occurs on, or is delivered to, school property or a school-sponsored activity or event on or off school property; or (b) Occurs off of school property or outside of a school-sponsored activity or event, if the conduct interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities, creates a hostile environment for that pupil or others, or substantially disrupts the orderly operations of the school or school-sponsored activity or event.
To be sure, this language focuses exclusively on the school’s role in responding to student bullying and cyberbullying. It is also vitally important that parents are involved in disciplining their children when they misuse technology, but that is more difficult to legislate.
Of course the above legislative language wouldn’t address adult behaviors. Those should be handled in civil court (intentional infliction of emotional distress, harassment, false light, etc.) or in rare cases criminal court (harassment, stalking, misuse of computerized communications devices). For more information about responding to adult online harassment, see my blog here.
What do you think? Does your city have a cyberbullying ordinance? If you are a police officer or local prosecutor, I would love your opinion on whether you think local regulations are the way to go.
Help With Fake Facebook Profile Pages
Imagine you receive an email from a friend that includes a link to a Facebook profile. You click on the link and see your name and picture on the profile. But you didn’t create it. And some of the information included isn’t exactly flattering. In fact, it’s embarrassing, and malicious, and ruining your reputation. Now what do you do? We regularly receive requests from people who find themselves, their kids, or their friends in this situation. The key in responding is to move quickly to gather information and to inform the proper authorities.
If you know who created the profile, ask them to remove it. Facebook has a social reporting tool that allows you to convey your disapproval, and ask that the content be removed, in a respectful way. (You can read Larry Magid’s recent interview with Facebook’s Arturo Bejar where they discuss these options.)
If you don’t feel comfortable with that, or do not know who created it, you can report it to Facebook and it will be disabled while they investigate. If you do not have a Facebook account, you can report imposter profiles here. If the creator of the fake profile attempts to log into the account after it has been reported, Facebook will require the user to prove their identity and display a map that shows where they are at (thereby removing the veil of complete anonymity). I think that is pretty cool! Facebook also educates the user about the consequences of identity theft. The company has developed numerous other tools to help you protect your information and reputation, including a form that allows you to request the records of an account that was impersonating you. Learn about and take advantage of all of these resources.
It is important that you collect as much information about the profile as you can before reporting it to Facebook. Take screenshots (see our fact sheet here) or simply print out the profile and any related information. Note the URL (web address) of the page because it includes the user ID (http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1000000XXXXXXXX) or username (http://www.facebook.com/username). Try to identify all of the people who are connected to the profile (friends or followers). Collect as much information about them as you can. It might help in determining who was behind the creation of the profile.
Overall, the more information you can gather, the more easily it will be to identify who is responsible, and hold them accountable, if necessary. Once the account has been disabled by Facebook, it will be more difficult for you to get the evidence you need. And if the account creator deletes the account before you have a chance to report it to Facebook or collect the evidence, it can be impossible to obtain information about who created it. So move quickly to capture what you can.
If you believe that what was said or posted about you on the fake profile is of a criminal nature (e.g., a threat or a hate crime) or violates your civil rights (e.g., defamation of character or libel), contact local law enforcement so that they can investigate. This is particularly important if you feel that your safety (or the safety of someone else) is in jeopardy. The police are trained to determine whether information contained on the site could be viewed as a “true threat,” or if it violates the law in any other ways. The first thing the investigating officer should do is complete a formal request to Facebook to preserve the page details and accompanying account information before they are deleted by the user who created the page. Officers can do this even before a formal investigation has begun. The sooner this is done, the better. There are more guidelines for law enforcement officers here.
Law enforcement can also assist you in obtaining a subpoena, which is a legal order that requires a person or entity named to show up at court or to produce documents or other information specified (that could be used as evidence in a trial). While the specific procedures can vary by state, law enforcement officers can obtain a subpoena from a judge, county or state prosecutor, or other qualified attorney, once an investigation has begun. Facebook regularly assists law enforcement in responding to subpoenas by providing information about the creator of the account, including their name, email address, date of birth, and some other account identifiers provided by the user when they signed up. Lawyers can also obtain a subpoena for the purposes of obtaining evidence to be used in a civil case.
With a court order (which can only be issued by a judge), law enforcement officers can get additional information from Facebook, including transactional logs such as intra-session IP addresses. The IP address is the unique identifier that every online device is given. With the IP address, law enforcement will be able to determine the Internet Service Provider (ISP). Again using a court order, the officer will be able to obtain from the ISP the billing address and other subscriber information of the person involved.
If during the course of the investigation the officer determines that criminal charges are appropriate, they may obtain a warrant from a judge for the purpose of collecting even more information from Facebook, including the content of the pages (e.g., photos and comments). A warrant is another court order issued by a judge, but it must be accompanied by probable cause that the information requested is necessary for the purposes of investigating a crime. According to the Stored Communications Act: “A governmental entity may require the disclosure by a provider of electronic communication service of the contents of a wire or electronic communication…only pursuant to a warrant issued using the procedures described in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure…” So without a warrant, Facebook has no obligation to provide the content of the pages. This is a good thing for those of us who use Facebook and other online environments appropriately and legally: Only when we are implicated in a crime should the content of our profiles be turned over to the government.
The differences described above between what information can be obtained through a request, a subpoena, a court order, or a warrant is determined somewhat by the company (Facebook in this case) but mostly by federal and state law. It largely depends on whether the information requested is the property of the company, the Internet Service Provider, or the customer. Technically, everything you post on Facebook is your property, though you give Facebook permission to use that information for certain purposes as a condition of using the site.
Some states include electronic communications in their impersonation or identity theft laws. For example, it is a class A misdemeanor in New York if someone “Impersonates another by communication by Internet website or electronic means with intent to obtain a benefit or injure or defraud another, or by such communication pretends to be a public servant in order to induce another to submit to such authority or act in reliance on such pretense.” Consult with law enforcement or a local attorney to learn more about the specific laws in your state.
In many cases, however, fake profiles are created for a laugh and the persons responsible perhaps do not fully understand the consequences of their behavior. This is especially true in incidents involving adolescents. So if there is no clear threat or other evidence of criminal behavior, resist contacting the police and try to work through the problem informally, involving parents, schools, and other adults as appropriate.
That said, there have been many incidents where students have created profiles about educators or their classmates that have ended up in court. Try to avoid this by proactively educating your children and students about these issues, and by creating a positive climate at school. In that way, hopefully they will not participate in these behaviors and if someone else does create a fake profile about them, they will know what to do and will feel comfortable turning to an adult for help.
Law Enforcement Perspectives on Cyberbullying
Much of our work to teach adults about what teens are doing online is directed toward educators or parents, but increasingly we are working with law enforcement officers – especially those assigned to a school setting (school resource or liaison officers). Like the others, police officers often find themselves in a difficult situation when confronted with a cyberbullying incident because of unfamiliarity with the technology or ambiguity in currently laws not designed to address such behaviors. Despite deficiencies in the law, most officers recognize that their role goes beyond simply enforcement. This is especially true for school-based officers who are mentors, educators, investigators, first responders, and so much more. Even when it comes to responding to cyberbullying or other teen technology misuse, law enforcement officers should be encouraged to use their discretion to “handle” the particular situation in an informal and creative way, when appropriate. Threats of arrest or detention don’t usually deter students from misbehaving, because they often feel invincible or able to elude the law. But the student who develops a strong bond to an officer will no doubt follow the law voluntarily in order to avoid disappointing their mentor. This is related to the broader issue of the importance of developing a caring and respectful climate at school—one in which the school law enforcement officer is a contributing part.
Over the last couple of years, we have formally surveyed approximately 1,000 law enforcement officers (including over 300 school resource officers) to better understand their unique perspectives concerning cyberbullying and other online behavioral problems. I will be presenting some of this research at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association later this week in Chicago. In general, over 85% of the officers surveyed said that cyberbullying was a serious concern that warrants the response of law enforcement. Almost 90% of the school resource officers had dealt with a cyberbullying case “sometimes” or “often.” Interestingly, though, about 25% of the school resource officers and over 40% of the traditional law enforcement officers didn’t know if their state had a law specific to cyberbullying. If you are one of those people, see our summary here.
So what we have learned in our preliminary research and discussions with law enforcement officers is that they realize they have a role to play, but they need more training. More and more states are passing laws on bullying and cyberbullying and while most of the legislation focuses on the responsibilities of educators, many school administrators are turning to their law enforcement partner for assistance. If you are a school-based officer, then you are in the right place to learn about these issues. If you are an educator or parent, you might want to pass our site on to them so they have a resource to turn to.
If we want to stop cyberbullying, all of the adults who interact with students need to recognize it as something worth stopping. That means we should talk with adolescents about online responsibility and integrity and intervene when we see or hear something inappropriate. Again, that doesn’t mean we should arrest and formally sanction those who engage in bullying. We have long argued that most cyberbullying cases should be handled informally. I believe that law enforcement officers should be in on these efforts as well. We need to remember that the primary goal is to get the bullying, no matter where it is happening, to stop. The more we accept that as our underlying mission, the easier it will become to see what needs to be done.